My grandfather died in November of 2017. He was 88 years old.
The process of losing him was an extended, painful one. It’s hard to say when it really began, but there was a decided shift when he decided to commit to palliative care. A doctor explained to him how the process would go, then released him from the hospital. My grandfather came home, where he spent his last couple months.
These months felt like an eternity. Before he had even been to the hospital, he had trouble walking. He spent most of his days in bed, and often had to be helped with basic tasks, such as using the bathroom. Upon returning from the hospital, everything seemed to have worsened. He only left his bed to use the toilet, and constantly moaned from the pain he was experiencing.
Dying is supposed to be a grand battle against eternity and fate, but it’s really a battle against the accumulating piss in your diaper, the mucus that won’t stop flowing, the way that the pillow presses uncomfortably into your shoulder. A million tiny indignities, amplified into catastrophe by the endless time you’ve got to sit and experience your own decaying flesh and failing mind.
My grandmother stayed at his side through the entire process, and my mother was always the first person to help him. My brother and I took on the tasks that required a little more muscle. We had to turn him over so that he wouldn’t get bedsores. Often we had to help him onto and off of the toilet.
Caring for someone is hard. Not in the sense that it’s an intense effort that will make you cry, but in ways that are deeply mundane and unheroic, like a job at a fast food restaurant. It’s doing things that are distasteful- perhaps not abject, but slightly gross, and always at times when you’d rather be relaxing, or reading a book, or watching a movie. The work is there, and it’s unpleasant, and there’s an infinite amount of it, and none of it will ever seem to make a lasting difference. You get tired, you get lazy, you get bored, and you want it to be over. That’s an experience that’s far darker than breaking down, far more subtle. It feels pathetic. It feels disappointing. You feel helpless and inadequate before it.
It was a strenuous time for all of us, but it began to feel routine. The man needed something, and we helped him with it. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night, sometimes in the morning, sometimes during the day. Sometimes it was at a convenient time, sometimes not.
There was a part of me that expected it to go on forever. Every day I would wake up, every day my grandfather would be in pain, and every day, I’d do a little bit to make his life momentarily easier, to ensure that he was in a comfortable position in the bed, or to bring him the mail (if he were lucid enough to read it). I’d smell the odor that accumulated on him despite my mom’s best efforts to sponge the filth from his body, and I would feel the same combination of pity, sadness, and disgust.
And then, one day, it stopped.
I had stepped out of the room, and, within a few minutes, my grandfather stopped breathing. I still remember the shape that his open mouth made, and the uncanny blackness inside of it. I remember how pale he was. I remember being surprised that his corpse looked visibly different than it did when he was alive.
We gave my grandmother some time to privately say her farewells, then my aunt and mother, after which my cousins and I gathered around with everyone else to let him go. He had asked that we not hold a funeral service for him. We respected those wishes, but we still meet in remembrance of him, still talk and recognize the loss, do our best to honor him.
Over time, the resentment and anxiety and guilt started to fade. The sensation of being weighted down by his condition subsided, and was replaced by fonder memories. I started to remember what it was like to be 12 years old and going through the Jack in the Box drive-thru, excited to eat a hamburger and drink a milkshake with him. I remembered what it was like to go to the park as a child, him sitting on the bench and laughing as he watched us run around and climb up and down the jungle gym. I remembered things that I’d long forgotten; the sight of him sitting in the garage, watching pro wrestling and offering me a soda even though I wasn’t supposed to have any. Smiles, enthusiasm, energy that seemed to have dissipated over the years of illness, but now returned, proof that it had been indelibly stamped into my person.
These are the things that live in us, despite death, despite loss, despite the pain and suffering. Death is truly, profoundly inconceivable, but I take comfort in the fact that it may not be so total of an erasure. The warmth in his smile, the moments of joy and his small, humorous transgressions all continue to exist in the people he knew, the people who loved him; the people who still do.
So we carry on, bringing with us the memories, the love, the experiences shared by those who could not accompany us. They are necessarily small, incomplete parts that can never add up to the whole. Sometimes, though, they can be enough.
In Memory of Russell Kakazu.